We take four distinctly different SUV’s in the hunt for snow.
The call of the mountains is a very real phenomenon. It’s never quite a high-pitched shriek – more like a low-frequency chorus that’s drowned out by the noise of the daily grind. You do hear it in the background every once in a while though – and, eventually, you do have to take notice.
I hadn’t made a trip to the mountains since the SJOBA rally in March last year, so I was itching to succumb to this ever-present calling. A month or two before SJOBA last year – very early in 2013 – we decided to make a trip to the hills in the hunt for snow. The weather gods were kind enough to greet us with bright sunshine, following which they pelted us with a snowstorm through the night. And this led to some stunning shots the following day of the four compact SUV’s that served as the chariots of choice – the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Range Rover Evoque, and Volvo XC60.
Well, four seems as good a number as any – so we went about lining up an intrepid fleet of the same size for this year’s adventure. Now, we know from last year that premium compact SUV’s can get the job done. They may be crossovers, but a reasonable ride height and four-wheel drive gives them the artillery needed to take on the harshest conditions that Mother Nature can throw at them – well, this side of the Jalori Pass anyway.
The burning question in 2014 is whether we could make a similar trek in more rudimentary, two-wheel drive compact crossovers. Now, the daily grind doesn’t let up for too long, so we only had two days over a weekend to make the trip there and back – so, making it all the way to the the Jalori Pass was out of the question. We would set up camp at a home in Mashobra – roughing it out is a relative term, after all – and explore some of the roads and trails in the area. Now, this is not only SJOBA terrain, but also home to the opening day of the Raid de Himalaya – so, it would more than suffice.
The obvious choice for a compact crossover at present is the Ford EcoSport. Now, you may have to wait up to a year to put one in your driveway, but a phone call is all it took to borrow one for a few days. The same was true for the Nissan Terrano, which is essentially a tarted up version of my service car for SJOBA last year – the Renault Duster. Now, we know full well that the Duster is an extremely capable and rugged crossover. I used it to lug around not only a full Gypsy’s worth of spare parts and a service crew, but it also served as my recee vehicle – which was my excuse for hurling it around the stages that the Gypsy would later tackle. Let’s just say that it passed with flying colours.
So, with the affordable end of the spectrum taken care of, it was time to move upscale. By far the most comfortable machine from our 2013 European congregation was the Volvo XC. The only thing that really held it back were slightly frumpy looks. Well, it just so happens that the XC60 has recently been adorned with a more svelte front and rear end – so it was back in the game.
Now, with this trio we would have a reasonable breath of capability, but what if I wanted to drive straight up (or down) a snow covered peak – should we be fortunate enough to actually encounter one? Well, there is one SUV that’s perfect for the job. Moreover, it’ll swaddle you in leather all the way up and down the slope as well. It is, and can only be, the new Range Rover. We chose the Sport, since it was fresh off the boat from the UK.
Now, the only thing left to do was to pray for some fresh snow!
The night before we were to head out, I heard a piece of news that was music to my ‘ringing’ ears. The snowstorm had arrived even before we were to set off – it looked like we were going to be in luck once again. So, the next morning we waited for the fog to abate – which is another way of saying that we were too lazy to leave before dawn – and took this motley crew on the road.
On the highway, it has to be said that all these machines were really quite capable. Of course, the 3.0 litre diesel engine in the Range was in a different league to the 1.5 litres of the EcoSport – but the Ford isn’t one to wallow in self-pity as the RR Sport disappears off into the distance. The EcoSport was ever willing to roll up its sleeves and match the others – overtaking-manoeuvre for overtaking-manoeuvre! Sure, you have to work the gearbox that little bit harder and the engine note is a little more audible than the more pricey duo, but the Ford is surprisingly capable on the highway.
The strong point for the Duster, meanwhile, was always its mid-range and sublime ride – both character traits that are retained to the tee in the Terrano. It can traverse absolutely any terrain at any speed without nauseating its passengers. Step into the Volvo, though, and it’s no surprise that you can immediately tell that you’ve opened the doors to a totally different motoring experience – one that offers up Scandinavian luxury and simplicity in equal measure. But, before that, you savour the experience of placing your derriere on the most comfortable seat this side of an Eames chair – much like every time you get into a Volvo. Don’t get too comfortable though, because this 2.4 litre turbo-diesel puts out 215 horses – all of which seem quite eager to keep the Range Rover honest.
I first drove the Range Rover Sport last year at JLR’s test track inside their headquarters at Gaydon, in the UK. Sure, it may have been only a five-minute drive, but I was completely blown away. You see, we started this high-speed sojourn on the oval – and since I had only one lap with the car, I gave it everything on the first corner knowing full well that the electronic safety net would keep me pointing in the right direction. But what happened next was inconceivable in a full size SUV. The RR Sport proceeded to progressively rotate around its axis like a Jaguar F-Type. And what happened after that was even more surprising. As I kept the power applied, the Sport did a controlled powerslide and emerged at the other end with its composure intact and it’s tyres smoking. I was smitten! The SDV6 too, which produces just under 300 horses, is a gem of a motor. Not only does it sound good, but it also pulls with the kind of urgency that makes you believe that there’s a V8, not a V6, under the hood. Of course, the fact that the entire body and (now monocoque) chassis is crafted from aluminium heightens the inherent capability of this incredible machine.
As we approached the foothills, my smile only grew wider – my subconscious was now content at having answered the call of the mountains. At this point, I decided to jump into the Terrano since I really enjoyed the Duster in the mountains the year before. But I jumped right out again shortly thereafter. You see, the Duster had one specific problem that could be quite annoying. The steering suffered from severe kickback – especially if you drove over a bump mid-corner. At times it even felt like the wheel could get snatched from your hand.
To correct this fault, and provide additional convenience to their driver presumably, Nissan has seemingly decided to lighten the steering. And while they may well have reduced the kickback slightly, and made the car easier to steer in the city, they’ve actually made the steering quite vague and devoid of feel. And I simply couldn’t let my first experience of the switchbacks be compromised, so I jumped into the Ford instead.
Now, if there’s one thing that Ford know how to do it’s set up a chassis – and the EcoSport is no different. You get in, set the seat position as low as possible, and feel quite well ensconced in the drivers’ seat between the imposing centre console and moulded door panel – you immediately feel connected to the car. And the EcoSport really does feel like a hot-hatch from behind the wheel – in fact, it doesn’t feel dissimilar to the Evoque from the year before. And that’s a good thing!
After a customary stop at Giani da Dhaba for an early lunch (and ice cream, surprisingly), we continue onwards and upwards. I’m in the Volvo next, and I have to remind myself just how composed this beautiful machine is no matter how you treat it. The steering is light, but accurate. And you can just take liberties with this car that would see you ending up off the side of the road, in a ditch, in most other machines – but not in the Volvo.
Of course, the Range is next – and you sit much higher in this than you do in any of the others. In that sense, it feels much more old school than the rest. What’s not old school, though, is the way it goes around corners. In fact, it’s so far removed from being old school that you have to actually learn to drive it properly. You see, if you push it into a corner – or inadvertently carry too much speed into a corner – your natural tendency is to ease off the gas pedal or hit the brakes. Do that, and the RR will hint its displeasure momentarily by giving you a sense of its girth for a fraction of a second before settling back in line. But, try that again – and this time, don’t brake or decelerate. Instead, continue to accelerate all the way around the corner – even if you feel as though you can’t make it. What happens then is that the torque vectoring kicks in to rescue you – it provides power to the outside wheels and slingshots you around the corner. So, in a sense, the faster you go the more in control you are – it’s almost inconceivable.
Evoke torque vectoring enough times and you reach your destination very quickly indeed – and so we were at Mashobra by early afternoon. What was most impressive, though, was the fact that not one of these machines had any trouble whatsoever in maintaining what can only be described as a fairly rapid pace – both on the highway and in the mountains. But we were about to separate the men from the boys. You see, the snow on the side of the road started to get progressively thicker the further away from Shimla that we came. And by the time we reached our destination, it was plentiful – thankfully!
The first challenge would be climbing the (slippery) slope to the house. The EcoSport conceded early, as the tyres simply couldn’t conjure up the grip to make the climb. In fact, the EcoSport seems to spin its wheels as an automatic defence mechanism to snow.
The next challenge would be attempted purely for entertainment. There was an even steeper slope just past the house that was caked in fresh snow. Now the only vehicle in this fleet that could possibly attempt to conquer this obstacle was the Range. I rotated the dial for the Terrain Response System to select the ‘snow’ setting and headed up the icy path. No problem at all. So, I turned around and headed right back down again. And this time I engaged the Hill Descent Control function. Now, the electronics judge your descent speed and all you have to do is steer. But the system takes a fraction of a second to judge the angle of descent and the grip levels. In this instance, on this steep, snow-covered slope, I made the mistake of hitting the brakes as the car lunged forward momentarily before the system could take effect. That was a mistake. I couldn’t control the descent on the brakes, and the car began sliding uncontrollably towards the embankment on the right – all one crore worth (more actually)! My heart sank, as I depressed the brake pedal with all my strength. Luckily, the front right tyre found grip momentarily and stopped. This time I engaged Hill Descent once again, and made sure not to intervene. Of course, with the system in play we made it all the way down without further incident – phew!
So, with all four machines intact, we headed out in search of some dirt (and hopefully snow-covered) trails. And while we didn’t encounter any deep snow, we did find some pretty challenging trails. Driven sensibly, even the Ford was game to continue on. The Nissan was surprisingly composed on the snow